Some B2B marketers are liars (or not)

What’s more important, the absolute facts and figures or  the story?

As I have written many times before on this blog (read e.g. the posts mentioned at the bottom of this article,) I am not a big fan of presenting naked numbers to an non-expert audience. IMHO, most numbers, spreadsheets and charts are meaningless without a value context or without a good story.

The title of this week’s post is inspired by the title of Seth Godin’s 2005 bestseller “All marketers are liars.” In this book the author illustrates the power of marketing an authentic story:

“All marketers tell stories. And if they do it right, we believe them. We believe that wine tastes better in a $20 glass than a $1 glass. We believe that an $80,000 Porsche Cayenne is vastly superior to a $36,000 VW Touareg, even if it is virtually the same car. We believe that $225 Pumas will make our feet feel better —and look cooler— than $20 no names… and believing it makes it true.”

Though Godin’s examples are originating from B2C use cases, the title statement also holds for B2B marketers. Often we think that, unlike consumers —who tend to make buying decisions based upon impulse, emotion, or even the love for a certain brand— business customers only care about detailed product specs, competitive differentiators, and value-for-money. But business decision-making is often driven by emotion too.

Recently I came across a CEB research paper about the challenges that marketing leaders in large B2B organizations face in structuring a brand differentiation strategy and in addressing their customer’s real needs:

  • Branding is important. Most B2B buyers (74%) believe that brands provide business value, although the exact value is hard to quantify by numbers. Only 14% of customers perceive a real difference in a supplier’s offerings and value its difference enough to be willing to pay a premium for it, while 68% of buyers who see a personal value will pay a higher price for a product or service. This personal value includes emotional appeals in areas such as professional benefits, social benefits, emotional benefits, and self-image benefits.
  • Stories and personal value messages drive action. 48% of B2B buyers say they have ever wanted to buy a new solution but not spoken up about it because of fear of losing respect and credibility with colleagues (or even their job). To drive action, suppliers must shift their customers’ focus away from the costs and risks of change, and start a conversation with their prospects about personal difficulties, emotional needs and future personal gains.

By telling a story that empathizes with their customers’ real challenges and offers them solutions in a language they can understand, B2B marketers can build trust and support buyers in their choices and decisions.


And, although one should never lie to your audience or present them with content that you definitely know is incorrect, there is nothing wrong with omitting meaningless figures, or framing the facts to better align with the message you’re trying to convey.

More reading:

The perceived value of value

As I discussed in former blog posts about “five lessons from B2C” and “the good life”, there’s a lot that business presenters can learn from consumer marketing. A key lesson is that there is no universal standard that defines value.

I have worked in high-tech companies for many years now, and although me and most of my fellow marketers proudly call ourselves “customer centric”, we tend to assume that we always need to impress our audience with the latest ‘n’ greatest technology and with the best in class performance. And we use to call this “value”.

But lately I presented to an industrial customer who didn’t get impressed by the Mbps, GHz or PPI figures, the complex system architectures and the tons of product features he was bombarded with, but kept asking for a simple, stable and field proven solution. To this specific prospect, “value” just meant that the product would flawlessly do what it was supposed to do – nothing more, but also nothing less. And at a reasonable (which is not the same as the lowest possible) cost.

This is exactly what is happening in B2C too. Starbucks is offering good coffee at a “bearable” price (but not cheap at all). Their value offering is in the quality and the choice of their products, combined with a few extra differentiators (or benefit experiences) such as e.g. free Wi-Fi.


McDonald’s is a similar case. Why would you spend big money to take your young children to a three-star restaurant if there’s Happy Meal® box and a PlayPlace at walking distance?

And there is also the story of Harvey’s: a half-a-century old hardware store in Massachusetts that sells commodity goods like nuts and bolts, but manages to obtain a revenue per square meter that is almost four times higher than its large-scale competitors  – by pricing products based on the (perceived) value of the benefit experiences they provide to their customers.

Sometimes good is good enough. No thrills, but also no surprises. With a few extras. No need to compete with players in a different league. So, hard value doesn’t exist. Value is in the perception of the beholder. It is a subjective concept that lies squarely in the minds of your customers and it’s always related to the context of their business, working or living environments.

So, as a B2B presenter, you’d better adapt your content and adopt your tone to the needs and expectations of your audience. And give them value for listening to you.

Other articles about the companies mentioned in this post:

Five lessons from B2C

It is often assumed that B2B and B2C are two different worlds. This is based upon the observation that people who buy goods for themselves are acting in a different way than people who purchase products or services for their company. Hence, marketing and sales people need a different skill mix.

This is (at least partly) true – but there’s also a lot that B2B storytellers can learn from their B2C peers…

  1. Segment your audience. There’s no one-size-fits-all presentation pitch that will suit all possible listeners. You won’t sell the same products to a 76 and a 16 year-old consumer. Neither can you charm an engineer and a company purchaser with exactly the same value proposition.
    Always make sure you know your target audience and its needs before you start preparing your story and your visuals.
  2. The one you address is not always the one who buys. There are many examples in B2C marketing, such as selling mobile minutes to teenagers (Dad pays…) or advertising the unique features of a car (Mom decides…).
    The most attentive listeners (or the most active question askers) in the room are often not always the ones who own the budget. Try to identify upfront who has the real decision power and draw a power-map of your audience.
  1. Decision making is often emotion-based. Another misconception is that business people behave rationally and pragmatic, and that –unlike consumers, who (sometimes) tend to make buying decisions based upon impulse, emotion, or even the love for a certain brand– they (always) go for the highest-tech or lowest-price proposition. Quoting Seth Godin’s blog: some of them “might be willing to look at the specs, but they really don’t understand them enough to care.
    A 2012 Upshot study shows the role and the value of emotion in B2B marketing. You can influence decision-making by creating an emotional connection with your audience. Use inspiring visuals, stories, anecdotes and real-life examples… it can make a difference.
  2. Value is in the eyes of the beholder. Two persons may have a completely different perception about the ‘value’ of a hamburger menu or a Michelin-rated restaurant. It’s not always the price/quality ratio that makes the difference.
    De gustibus et coloribus non est disputandum (there’s no arguing about tastes and colors). Know and understand the WIIFM for your audience members and try to fit your value proposition to their expectations.
  1. The medium supports the message.  Consumer marketers use repetition and imagery to capture the public’s attention, create interest for their products and reinforce their brands.
    In your business presentations, apply pause-and-repeat techniques and frequently summarize your key points. And in this era of transmedia storytelling, don’t stick to static imagery: use sound bites, video clips and live demonstrations to add pizzazz to your message.

So, next time you present to a group of business people, take a step back and think of them as a collection of everyday consumers. You may get some surprisingly positive reactions…